There was a sense of urgency in the way Vallidevi — a worker in one of the tea plantations in Munnar town’s suburbs — spoke while ascending the steep slope to pluck tea leaves, which she starts at 8 in the chilly mornings. When this reporter asked her about the workers’ priorities that need to be discussed ahead of the upcoming Assembly election, she quickly assessed her surroundings and said, “I wish to talk to you in detail, but I cannot.” Before she could complete her sentence, the plantation supervisor approached this reporter and said, “Workers cannot talk about politics or related issues here (during working hours). It’s the rule.”
It wasn’t, however, a difficult task to find out what plantation workers like Vallidevi wanted to talk about. A quick walk around the layams – line houses where the workers live – was enough. For a majority of the plantation workers, who have roots in Tamil Nadu, it has been a fight to get adequate housing, healthcare facilities and jobs for educated youth.
The Devikulam Assembly constituency in Idukki, comprising of Munnar, consists of 11 grama panchayats, and is reserved for the Scheduled Caste category. The seat is a CPI(M) stronghold, where the party has been in power for the last three Assembly terms.
Although various media outlets and human rights organisations have time and again highlighted the ordeals of the plantation workers in the district, it made headlines only in 2015 when a group of women, under the tag Pembilai Orumai, came together demanding an increase in their daily wages, which was till then a meagre Rs 250. Due to the days-long protest, their daily wage today stands at Rs 450. This is the constituency where its residents, especially plantation workers, lost their houses and loved ones in massive landslides in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
The residents still wait for their leaders to deliver on their promises. In fact, many residents in this constituency say they joined political parties only to avail certain benefits that party members receive. They explain why they keep highlighting the same issue every election.
Seventy-year-old Murali* retired as a plantation worker from a tea estate near Munnar over 10 years ago. He lives with his wife in one of the tiny line houses in Periyavara near Munnar. But with the fear of eviction and homelessness always looming large, their stay has never been peaceful. Over the past several years, hundreds of plantation workers have been forced to leave the layams allotted to them by the tea plantation company after retirement. As a result, many families push their children into plantation work to retain the house.
A layam near Munnar
“I’m the fifth generation in my family to work here, we came from Tamil Nadu. None of us owns a piece of land or house. We were born in the layams and will die in the layams,” said Murali. Like Murali, thousands of workers in the various plantation estates in Idukki do not own a land or house. There are only a very few who have inherited ancestral property in Tamil Nadu.
Hence, it is no surprise why the plantation workers highlight the issue of housing to all those who have come to their doorstep seeking votes. And this also explains why candidates for the upcoming Assembly election make it a point to include housing as one of their main poll promises.
As part of his campaign, advocate A Raja, the CPI(M) candidate, is highlighting how the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government constructed houses for many in the constituency in the past five years. D Kumar, who has been fielded by the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), also mentions the issue of housing. “I will see to it that the one-room layams are reconstructed to include two rooms,” he told media.
Layams in Rajamalai
However, experience has taught people not to take these promises seriously, said Vinod*, a plantation worker. “Everyone comes during election time, makes promises and leaves. After that, we don’t see them here,” he said.
It must be noted that the first apartment complex under the LDF government’s flagship housing project, Livelihood Inclusion and Financial Empowerment (LIFE) Mission, was constructed in Adimali for landless people. It currently houses 163 families. While the workers do accept that some among them were granted houses, many allege that houses were not given to those most in need.
“Preference should be given to those like Murali, who is retired, has no one to look after him and no means of income. But it’s mostly people associated with the party who get the benefits,” alleged Gopal*, a plantation worker who is also part of the CPI(M).
The workers also said they are dependent on loans from cooperative societies in the region, which are controlled by trade unions of the Congress and CPI(M). “This is also another reason plantation workers join parties,” Gopal said.
Thirty-five-year-old Gracy hoped to end this vicious cycle of homelessness by getting her children educated, so that they can find jobs outside the plantation sector. However, an unpleasant accident caused a setback to her family. She slipped and fell while working in the tea estate, and fractured a hip bone. With no advanced healthcare government facilities in the region and no monetary assistance from the company, Gracy had to seek treatment from a private hospital, for which she had to borrow Rs 2 lakh.
The nearest government hospital is the Taluk Hospital in Adimali, which is about 24 km from Munnar. For those living in the interior areas like Pettimudi, Rajamalai and Kanthalloor, seeking treatment from a government hospital is a challenge.
Hospital run by a tea estate in Rajamalai
Though the plantation workers get free treatment at the healthcare facilities set up by the tea estate companies, they allege that these are very basic. Further, only those who work in the company can avail the free treatment, and their children cease to receive free treatment after they turn 18.
Though a government healthcare facility in the vicinity is one of the major demands of the people here, both Congress and CPI(M) candidates do not highlight this issue during the election or after being elected.
“There have been many instances where people have lost their lives due to the time taken to transport them to specialised hospitals,” said Gopal.
Seventy-five-year-old Rajamma, another retired plantation worker, too, had once hoped to lead a better life when her grandchildren completed their education and got good jobs. “My 28-year-old granddaughter has completed her teachers’ training and my 30-year-old grandson passed out from the Industrial Training Institute (ITI). But both are doing odd jobs. My granddaughter now works as a saleswoman in a shop. They have not been able to find jobs according to their qualification,” said Rajamma, sitting alone in her quarters.
The youth also said that it’s a herculean task to leave plantation work. For instance, Riju*, a 24-year-old commerce graduate hailing from a family of plantation workers, wants to start his own business, but the lack of financial backing from the government is a hindrance.
“When my father retires, I will definitely get a job in the tea estate, but I don’t want that. I wish to start my own business. If I had property, I could have availed a loan and received financial support,” said Riju, who currently works as a painter. “We want companies that can provide employment to the educated youth here,” he added.
(*Names changed on request)